Gianfranco Zola never thought he would become a manager. But then he never thought Roberto Mancini, his opponent on Saturday as Manchester City host Watford, would be at home in the dugout either.
"No, I didn't expect Mancini to become a manager," Zola says. "Because of the type of player he was - he was an intelligent player, of course, but I didn't think he had the desire to become a manager. But I guess if you speak to some of my team-mates they'd probably say they didn't expect me to either. I certainly didn't expect it."
During his illustrious playing career, Zola faced Mancini many times, as well as being in the same Italy squad. "It was always a hard game against him," Zola says. Indeed, Mancini's competitiveness was always a bit more 'edgy' than Zola's. Just ask Juan Sebastian Veron, a former team-mate at Sampdoria, who recalls how he once swore at Mancini after a badly taken corner only to find him stripped to the waist following the match waiting for a fight. "He's not an easy person, you know," Veron later said. "He has this complicated personality."
Mancini's management style has been similar to his playing style, to seek out confrontation, and yesterday's newspapers were full of photographs of his latest clash with Mario Balotelli. It would be unimaginable ever to see Zola in a similar scenario, although no one should doubt his will to win.
Zola may talk of today's game as a "bonus" for Watford, riding high in the Championship, but if they were to defeat City it would be a huge blow to Mancini, who has promised that he will win silverware. He would then be left with only the pursuit of Manchester United to retain the Premier League title.
Zola knows the pressure is on his opponent. "It's a job in which you get the spotlight all the time considering all the money they spent to build a team," he says. "You know the expectation is quite high but I think he's done very well. Money doesn't guarantee you win things and he's won the FA Cup and the Premier League."
Zola confounded expectation by eventually following Mancini - two years his senior at 48 - into coaching. Why? "I stopped playing football," Zola explains. "And life wasn't easy without football. I had one year without it. When I was playing football it was 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So I said to myself when I stopped that I wanted to dedicate myself to things I'd never done before. I even had a list." What happened to the list? "After three months, I lost the list," Zola says with a grin. The football bug was biting. "It's addictive," he adds.
"Those of us who spent the majority of our lives doing the same routine, the same things, it's like a second family and it's something you miss. So I had to get involved."
By the time Zola had retired in 2005, after two seasons of homage back in his native Sardinia, playing for Cagliari, having politely refused Roman Abramovich's implorations to stay with Chelsea following the Russian billionaire's takeover, Mancini was already into his third coaching job in Serie A.
Zola wanted to develop young players - and it was no surprise that his first job was working with the Italy under-21 side, along with another former striker, Pierluigi Casiraghi. Then, in September 2008, West Ham United took a punt on Zola as their manager and he led the side to ninth in the Premier League, playing some vibrant football at times, before the club went into financial meltdown.
"Working with the under-21s to then working day in, day out as a manager was very stressful because you are learning," Zola explains. "But there were so many things that happened which were beyond my control. Now I look back and think the job I did wasn't so bad."
It was a major feat when Zola managed to steer West Ham away from relegation the following season but he was sacked by the club's new owners, David Sullivan and David Gold, who questioned whether he was a strong enough character. "I'm sure there are some people who still think I'm too much of a nice guy to be a manager but I'm certain that's not an issue," Zola says.
"I keep saying of the players, they don't respect people who make them feel afraid. They respect people who they know are doing something good for them."
Not that his West Ham experience did not hurt. Zola was left physically and emotionally drained. "I was very tired when I left West Ham, but that's my character really," he says. "I gave everything. It can be bad, that, because you need to be at your best when you manage a football team. The players take it on board and see how you are. But you can't blame yourself for something you are learning - although, actually, I blamed myself a bit too much at the time. I was too hard on myself. But I have always been like that. It's my downside."
Zola needed time out - not just to recharge his batteries but also, he admits, "to improve the skills I needed to be a manager. It's not about proving people wrong, not at all. But some issues came out which if I had been more experienced I could have dealt with better".
He always intended to return - and to a job in England, turning down offers from "good teams" in Italy and over here before accepting the challenge of Watford, who had just been taken over by the Pozzo family. They had propelled Udinese from third-division strugglers in Italy to Champions League contenders and had also acquired the Spanish club, Granada.
Zola knows there has been "speculation" about the Pozzo approach, with 10 players on loan from Udinese and having 15 nationalities at Watford. "I will always play the best ones - whether they are French, Spanish, English, Italian - I don't look at their passports," he says.
"There were times when we trained with 32 players. We basically started with one team and then by the end of August we nearly had another team come over. But all the players have been fantastic. Maybe some people were surprised that I came here to Watford. But, after three or four months here, it's the best choice I could have made."
His philosophy is clear. "I want the players to enjoy their football as much as I did in my career and to make it enjoyable for those who come and see it," Zola explains. Promotion is an aim but not a "priority" this season - although with Watford in the play-off places they will "fight to the end".
For today, it is the FA Cup and it is a competition that means much to Zola - and to Mancini. It was, for both, the first they won after moving to England and Zola recalls Chelsea's triumph, in 1997, which ended their 26 years without winning a major competition.
"I came here with an Italian mentality, thinking that the FA Cup was like the Italian Cup, which is not really considered very highly," he says. "But when we won it, it was an unbelievable feeling and I will never forget being on that bus down the King's Road. It was amazing."
One match stands out - the fourth-round victory over Liverpool. "We were losing 2-0 after 45 minutes but we came back and that was an unbelievable game," Zola says.
Maybe Watford will draw inspiration from the manager's feats? "We will treat the Cup as a game that's like a present for all of us," Zola says. "The players have nothing to lose and I want them to show how good they can be."
For Mancini, the stakes are a little higher.